MARKETING SUPERSTARS;VIRGIN COLA SIMON LESTER

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LONDON-Simon Lester has put the fizz in Europe's private label cola market. In the U.K. alone, he has forced market leader Coca-Cola Co. on the defensive and helped Richard Branson join the cola war with the launch of Virgin Cola.

Mr. Lester, 32, managing director of Cott Europe, a subsidiary of the Canadian cola syrup giant Cott Corp., helped the previously tasteless U.K. store-brand colas to rival Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola and persuaded continental European retailers in seven countries to launch their first store-brand colas.

His strategy has the personal touch. His sales pitch is always face-to-face. He asks prospective clients to taste a Cott-made cola. He customizes flavors for them. He suggests other products, like snacks, that would go well with the new drink. But mainly, he makes an irresistible offer: good taste that can compete with Coke and Pepsi plus a lower price that can undercut them.

And retailers are hooked. When U.K. supermarket giant J. Sainsbury, Mr. Lester's first big client, relaunched its store-brand cola in April 1994 with a Cott formula and in-store promotion for the great taste of Sainsbury's Classic Cola, sales soared. A worried Coca-Cola created a $5 million account for print and TV ads using slogans like "Nothing else tastes like Coca-Cola" and "We only make the real thing."

Despite Coke's firepower, by the first quarter of 1995, private label colas commanded 45% of the U.K. cola market, up from 20% a year earlier, according to A.C. Nielsen.

Mr. Lester, who describes himself as "very driven," recognized a kindred spirit in Mr. Branson, the flamboyant British entrepreneur whose Virgin Atlantic Airways competes with British Airways. Using the hip Virgin name and a Cott formula following one of Mr. Lester's persuasive in-person taste tests, Mr. Branson launched Virgin Cola in October 1994.

"Branson is considered a champion of the consumer; his company is always willing to stand up and have a go"-like Cott, Mr. Lester said.

Mr. Lester founded Cott Europe in late 1993 with only one assistant. This year, Cott Europe expects to generate $154 million in revenue, a 43% jump from 1994.

At industry conferences, Mr. Lester is often hailed as a hero who empowers European retailers to challenge Coke and Pepsi.

"Cott added a new dimension to Europe's cola market; it pioneered the concept" of producing premium-quality retailer-branded cola, said Richard Hall, chairman of soft-drink consultancy Zenith International, Bath, England.

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